The Exploding Doormat: Coping With Anger from People-Pleasing

“Exploding doormat” is a term I originally learned from someone who was working the twelve steps in Al-Anon. It refers to an individual (i.e. “doormat”) who has habitually bent over backwards, placed their needs last, given into people-pleasing tendencies for far too long…and “exploded” (i.e. become openly enraged and/or acted out) as a result.

Exploding may feel good in the moment, but it’s not a healthy, effective, or sustainable way of dealing with anger. While there’s nothing wrong with expressing feelings, by the time the doormat explodes, the amount of pent-up, festering anger may be disproportionate to the situation that triggers the actual explosion, and the person’s explosion can sometimes end up causing real harm to themselves and/or their relationships.

As a general rule, people-pleasers tend to bury their emotions in order to keep the so-called peace. Anger is one emotion that tends to be viewed as especially bad or dangerous in contexts where people do not know how to handle emotions productively. Many of my clients were taught that acknowledging, feeling, and (God forbid) expressing anger was always “wrong.” As a result, we have generations of adults who have no idea how to use their anger in positive, healthy ways. This article will explain how to manage and use your anger productively instead of exploding, stuffing, or turning it inwards.

“Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”

– Malcolm X

Start viewing your anger as data: As I often tell my clients: feelings are information. For example, if you’re sad, maybe it’s because you miss someone or lost something important to you. If you’re scared, maybe there is a threat in your presence and you need to get to safety. If you’re angry, it might be because a need was not met, a boundary is needed, or a line has been crossed. Often, feelings are trying to provide you with information for you pay attention to. For these reasons, they need not be regarded as a threat, even if that’s what you were once taught.

Recognize the signs that anger is present: This may come as a surprise to you, but a lot of people have had so much practice stuffing or detaching from their emotions that they sometimes struggle to recognize their own feelings. If this sounds like your experience, start by paying attention to the physical sensations, thoughts, and behaviors you exhibit when you become angry. This worksheet may help.

Accept the anger: Once you recognize that anger is present, use mindfulness to get curious about your anger. As yourself: What is this feeling trying to tell me? Is there another feeling underneath my anger (such as hurt or sadness) that’s here, too? While you’re getting curious about the feeling, practice self-compassion by telling yourself: “There is nothing wrong with feeling angry; it’s a normal, human emotion. I am not bad for having this feeling, so I will not judge or beat myself up for it.” Contrary to what you might have been taught, you don’t have to run away, fight, or deny your anger. Instead, simply let yourself feel it. Don’t try to change how you feel or tell yourself you don’t have the right to feel this way. As I often tell my clients: all your feelings are valid, it’s what you choose to do with them that makes all the difference.

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Decide on a productive action, then take it: In keeping with the idea that anger is data, practice using it to inform your next move. Maybe your anger is telling you that you need to set a boundary. Maybe it’s alerting you to the fact that you need talk your feelings out with someone, go for a run, or engage in another self-soothing activity. Maybe you need to say “no” or take a break. Once you decide what your anger needs, take productive action that aligns with this need as soon as you can. (Note that I said productive, NOT destructive, action. If you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or others, this is your cue to reach out for support immediately.)

In summation, anger tends to get a bad rap, but it’s actually a necessary and important emotion that can serve as a catalyst for positive change in your life and the lives of others. How do you manage feelings of anger?

I don’t often lose my temper, but I often have to use it.”

– Dolly Parton

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